The British Empire Library

Tropic Toro: Ugandan Society

by Brian K Taylor

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Jean La Fontaine (daughter of S H La Fontaine who was Assistant District Commissioner in the East African Protectorate 1910, retired as Acting Chief Native Commissioner, Kenya 1940. Anthropological field-work in Uganda 1953-55: Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics)
This anthropological study was undertaken as part of a wider comparative work on tradition and change in the varied indigenous societies of Uganda, financed by the Colonial Office at the Institute for Social Research, Makerere College. Taylor's research took place between 1950 and 1952, but this recent book on the western kingdom of Toro contains much material that he has not published before.

The book's sub-divisions reflect what were regarded as the main institutional divisions within society at the time of Taylor's field-work. The first three chapters cover a large part of daily life: the organisation of Toro households and villages, the salient identities and relationships of their residents. For some readers, the minutiae of classifying kin and details of the internal structure of clans may be more than they want to know about such matters, but Taylor uses the minimum of jargon and holds the reader's interest by using case-history material showing their importance.

The chapters on Economic Organisation and the Political System describe great changes. The introduction of money, cash-crops, taxes and wage-labour integrated Toro subsistence activities into an economic system that crossed Toro borders, extending even beyond Uganda. The traditional system of government and its maintenance of law and order through a hierarchical network of ties of patronage focused on the ruler had, by the 1950's, become a local government structure subordinate to the central government of the Protectorate. The Mukama was no longer an independent king, with forces at his command, but the agreement with the British increased his power, and that of his chiefs, over the Toro people. By transforming the traditional relationship of rulers to the land into freehold tenure, the British created a landed aristocracy. Toro peasants became their tenants, their dues enriching the landlords, among whom the king was pre-eminent. Class divisions more like those of the West developed.

These changes certainly had their effects on domestic affairs and on the nature of the local community, but social change is discussed largely in relation to the market-place, the chief's office and the courts. When it comes to religious life, Taylor's description ignores change altogether. Although missionaries had been active there since the end of the 19th century and an unknown but significant number of Toro were Christians by the mid twentieth-century, the chapter on religion describes traditional religious ideas and practices as though they were still unchallenged. Yet Christian ideas, not least those concerning monogamous marriage, had profound effects elsewhere in Uganda and almost certainly did in Toro.

In describing religion and family life in traditional terms. Tropic Toro is the kind of monograph anthropologists wrote in the middle of the Twentieth Century, as its author acknowledges. It was a common practice then to try to reconstruct 'traditional' society from what could be observed. Taylor's conclusion: that much of pre-colonial Toro society had survived the previous half century since the establishment of a British Protectorate, would have been unremarkable. Today it seems a premature judgement in the absence of sufficient historical knowledge to evaluate what was considered 'traditional' after half a century of change.

The theoretical appendix on change is added from an even later perspective; many readers may find it too specialist for their tastes, though specialists will not find it innovative. Yet, despite its shortcomings for anthropologists, the book is informative and people who know western Uganda in the past will find much in it to interest them.

British Empire Book
Brian K Taylor
Pennington Beech


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